Issue 35: the academic origins of an alleged occult image
An attempt to discover the story behind an iconic photograph celebrated in magical circles.
Anyone who’s interested in witchcraft and paganism (as I am) and has done an online image search on the subject (as I have) will almost certainly be familiar with this image.
It reliably comes up in the top few rows of search result pages for ‘witches’ coven’, for example.
And if you’re inclined to buy a low-quality reproduction of it, you can find prints for sale on, among others, Society 6 (called 'Circle of Witches'), Etsy ('Moonlight Dance'), and Amazon ('Wiccan Decor' or 'Witchy Wall Art').
I’ve loved the picture for as long as I’ve known it. I’ve also long been intrigued about its origin.
It’s clearly not a midnight dance, but what is it, where is it, and who are those women?
I recently came across a crumb of a clue which led me to Vassar College – a liberal arts institution in Poughkeepsie, New York. Founded in 1861, it was a pioneer for women’s education, offering tuition on par with the best men’s colleges of the day. It was only the second degree-granting institution of higher education for women in the United States.
The photographic subject of today’s newsletter – see it below in its full glory – is housed in Vassar’s archives and special collections, item number Ph.f17.37.
Ronald Patkus, Head of Special Collections and Adjunct Associate Professor of History, says: "It's an iconic photo, I'm not surprised you came across it."
The image depicts Vassar students in the College’s Shakespeare Garden.
“Unfortunately, the back of the photo doesn't provide any additional useful information,” Patkus says.
The College’s communications team has a reference to the photo being filed under ‘theatre’ and dating from 1924. And I have found some online references to the photo as ‘Vassar College girls practicing Greek dances, 1923’.
Patkus says there is nothing about the subject or date recorded where the photo is housed in the College archives, but concedes the above “seems plausible, I just can't say for sure”.
However, what the women are wearing offers a clue. Those dresses do not appear to be the everyday fashion of early 20th Century students.
And what we do know is that from its earliest days, the garden – which was created in 1916 and featured plants sourced from Shakespeare’s own garden in Stratford-upon-Avon – was used as an outdoor theatre.
Students studying Greek, as well as those studying Shakespeare, regularly performed plays there. For the garden's first anniversary, on 22 April 1917, students performed a scene from Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’ (which, coincidentally, contains overt themes of witchcraft).
Another possible explanation is the College's annual Founder's Day celebrations, which take place each April. From the early 20th Century, the day often included plays and pageants. Once it had a 'Julian-futuristic' theme and the faculty performed 'Julius Caesar’, and another time a 'circus' theme, complete with elephant.
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So, we’ve got the where and the who, but not quite the what…
Further tips gratefully accepted.
(Story updated 5 February 2023)